Face Time

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Videoconferencing is adding a new dimension to social networking - and a new opportunity for K-12 educators and learners.

Face Time

'MATCH' MAKERS
Roxanne Glaser(left) and
ShaneHoward devisedan
inter-districtvideoconferencing
project.

IT WAS THE PERFECT HALLOWEENproject. Each class would construct a three-dimensional"monster" out of common classroom materials (constructionpaper, cardboard boxes, tape, markers, glue,string, etc.), then write down instructions for buildingthe monster and send them off to another class in thedistrict, or in some other district, or even some otherstate. The students would have to describe the materialsused and how they were assembled, and in some casesprovide mathematical formulas for dimensions, angles,and shapes. At the conclusion of the project, the studentswould compare their monsters via a videoconferencingnetwork the district had invested in years earlier.

"We needed the face-to-face part at the end of the project so the students could actually show each other the monsters they made to see if they matched," says Roxanne Glaser, the distance learning coordinator for the Education Service Center (ESC) of Central Texas' Region 12 school districts. "It was actually a necessary component of the project. We call it 'face-to-face,' though what we're talking about is a synchronous meeting occurring in a videoconference. But it connects the faces and voices with the e-mail and the texting. It approaches what we do in actual social interactions, where we hear and see each other. This is really what has been missing for us in K-12."

Glaser developed and coordinates the annual Monster Match project, for which she received a National Distance Learning Week Award in November. Since its inception in 2005, with 22 K-3 classes in the region, the project has grown to include 86 K-8 classrooms, 1,800 students, two states (Texas and Michigan), and 172 monsters. The project taps students' creativity while simultaneously challenging their math and writing skills. What makes this project noteworthy from a technology perspective is its almost matter-of-fact reliance on a range of Web 2.0 technologies, from the wikis on which the monster descriptions are posted to the blogs through which the teachers share comments and questions.

What makes this project a harbinger of a bleeding-edge trend is the modest preview it provides of how the merging of traditional social networking and videoconferencing technologies might surface in K-12 environments.

"I see videoconferencing as a new dimension of social networking," says Glaser. "We started using it in the high schools, with 'dual-credit' classes. The classes would share teachers via videoconferencing. But I believe we are poised to begin using this technology to build new relationships among classrooms throughout the nation, and even the world. And that's where we're going to see some very powerful educational experiences."

Glaser's specialty is educational collaboration through videoconferencing technologies. She currently supports 58 districts in Region 12, which serves 77 K-12 school districts and 10 charter schools. Glaser works on Monster Match and other projects with video network engineer Shane Howard, who built the Monster Match website. Howard maintains the EdLink12 Telecommunications Network, which was developed by ESC Region 12 and is housed at its headquarters in Waco, TX. The network—which provides internet access, e-mail services, voice communications, secure data exchange, and videoconferencing— has grown over the past five years. Region 12 now relies on a network based on the H.323 standard for transporting multimedia applications over local area networks. Most desktop videoconferencing systems use the H.323 standard.

Glaser and Howard are using a new social network to expand the roster of schools with which they can partner on videoconferencing projects. Aimed at educators who use the technology in K-12 environments, the Polycom Collaborations Around the Planet (PCATP) website provides a global directory and professional network of videoconferencing users. Launched jointly in September by Polycom and Two Way Interactive Connections in Education (TWICE), Michigan's K-12 videoconferencing organization, PCATP is a free collaboration tool available to videoconferencing educators. It is designed to connect individuals, content providers, and administrators to exchange ideas, conduct research, build curriculum, create programs, and collaborate with distance and blended learning spaces.

"We were being inundated with calls from people looking for collaboration partners," says Elaine Shuck, Polycom's K-12 global education director. "The site was a natural extension of our strategy to provide collaborative visual communications and resources for educators in multiple environments."

The PCATP network is for anyone using videoconferencing systems based on either of two International Telecommunication Union standards: H.320, the standard for public switched telephone networks and such dedicated networks as T1 and satellite-based networks, and H.323.

"We want to provide the resources teachers need to be successful using this technology," says Shuck. "We can't do that and say, 'If you're not buying from the right vendor, then you don't get to participate.' The message we want to deliver is, 'Let's use the technology to collaborate with anyone around the world.'"

A Network of Videoconferencers

Janine Lim, instructional technology consultant for the Berrien County Intermediate School District in southwest Michigan, and co-founder and board member of TWICE, sees the PCATP professional network as a natural development, both because of the growth of videoconferencing in K-12 and the inherent need of videoconferencers to find others with compatible technologies.

"The use of videoconferencing technology has grown substantially among educators over the past few years," Lim says. "Incorporating a global directory of people into Polycom's other available resources, including the online content access program and services, will form a community of videoconferencing users and should serve to further grow the use of video among educators worldwide."

The PCATP network was built into an existing system called Read Around the Planet, which Polycom and TWICE also co-sponsor in cooperation with the National Education Association. Read Around the Planet grew out of the NEA's annual Read Across America event. This 10-year-old celebration of reading is timed each year to coincide with the March 2 birthday of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. (In 2008 Geisel's birthday will be celebrated on Monday, March 3.)

GET READY TOMASH IT UP

WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU COMBINE TWOSEPARATE WEB APPLICATIONS? SIMPLY THENEXT STEP IN SOCIAL NETWORKING.

"THERE WAS A TIME, not that long ago, when websites were isolatedinformation silos," says Lynne Schrum, education professor at GeorgeMason University in Washington, DC, "all content and no functionality.But the next generation of websites gives power to site visitors, providinga new level of customization, interaction, and participation."

Schrum is the co-author of the recently published Web 2.0: New Tools,New Schools (with Gwen Solomon, International Society for Technology inEducation, 2007). She has been watching the evolution of social networkingalmost from the beginning. One trend she sees on the horizon forthis child of Web 2.0: social networking mashups.

Named for the hip-hop practice of mixing song samples, mashups areseamless combinations of content and services from unrelated, evencompeting, websites. "You take Google Maps, for example," says JasonBloomberg, researcher with IT industry analyst firm ZapThink, "and combine it with another application—say the eBay real estate listings, or Chicagocrime.org—and you've got something new," hesays. Increasingly, the term covers any composite of disparate technologies.

A new generation of simple-to-use software tools is making it possiblefor just about anyone to combine web applications, Schrum says.The open source Gnizr project, for example, allows users to create a personalized portal forgroups of friends and colleagues to store, classify, and share information,and to mash it up with location-based applications, such asGoogle Maps (easily the most popular mashup target).

By simplifying the development of mashups, Schrum says, these toolswill allow creative developers to combine content and services from unrelatedwebsites. "To me, that's really exciting," she says. "It's like watching agood cook combine recipes to make something new and different."

Read Around the Planet, whose inaugural event was held in 2002, added the videoconference component. The program networks teachers who want to use videoconferencing in their classrooms to connect with other classrooms around the globe and read to each other. The result, Glaser says, has been one of the biggest K-12 videoconferencing social networks.

"[Read Around the Planet] is a huge carrot—a huge incentive to bring people into videoconferencing," she says. "Once they get in, they have that experience, and they can't help asking, 'What else can we do?' That's where the PCATP comes in."

"One of the problems with social networking sites is, you go there, get all excited, poke around, add your friends, and then never come back again," Lim says, "unless you have a compelling reason to do so. The compelling reason on the PCATP site is Read Around the Planet."

Read Around the Planet returns on Feb. 25 and runs through March 4. TWICE provides the registration tool, matches classrooms with partners, and provides support documents. Participating classrooms are responsible for their own video connection and developing their own reading activities for the event.

"The Collaborations Around the Planet network is going to help us to grow our programs even more," says Glaser. "We've created this niche of teachers partnering with other teachers to use the technology to further the educational mission. We've started to build social relationships among classrooms. We expect those relationships to grow not only in quantity, but quality."

Looking Ahead

If the student video-collaboration statistics from Texas' Region 12 are any indication, districts are already deep into an exploration of the potential of videoconferencing. Video interactions have grown significantly in the past three years, from a single project with 20 classrooms participating in the 2003-2004 school year to more than 500 connections among numerous projects serving 15,000 students during the 2006-2007 school year.

And yet this is the infancy of videoconferencing in K-12. Educators in techsavvy districts with the right resources are using the technology mostly for project collaboration. But as the technology proliferates and evolves—probably outside the classroom, Shuck says—videoconferencing is all but destined to emerge in a genuine social networking context.

A case in point: Paltalk, an internet chat service that is taking the bold step of offering a truly video-based social networking site. "It takes social networking to the next obvious level," Paltalk President Joel Smernoff told CNet.com last year. "Not just photos and video, but being able to chat live and reach out in a more personal way."

Paltalk is probably the first company to introduce voice/audio components to instant messaging. The site employs patented speech, conferencing, and VoIP to create multichannel chat rooms that support thousands of users at once.

Paltalk currently claims more than 4 million users in the world's largest interactive video community, dubbed PaltalkScene. The service allows users to watch and interact with online video programming, including serialized shows, live events, and user-generated content, as well as interact with each other through real-time voice, text, and video chat.

Using the downloadable PaltalkScene software, users can make free video calls with up to 10 friends. The company's website includes a "movie theater" where members can enter a video chat room with virtual screening rooms to watch video clips.

In November, Paltalk made headlines with the first-ever online interactive video press conference, featuring best-selling author Stephen King, who was promoting the then-upcoming film release of his 1980 novella The Mist.

So the technology for real-time, videobased social networking is out there. But when it finally surfaces in K-12 education in a big way, it will come with a downside, warns Jim Ericson, vice president of marketing for Agilix Labs, an eLearning solutions provider, probably best known for its GoCourse Learning System.

Real-time communication technologies like videoconferencing, Ericson points out, require synchronous interactions, which rob users of one of the most valuable qualities of web-based networking: the ability to time shift—to interact with others whether or not they're online with you at the same time. E-mail, blogs, and wikis all allow for time-shifted interactions; online chat rooms and virtual communities such as Second Life require you be there at the same time as those with whom you are communicating.

"One of the big advantages of virtual education and learning," Ericson says, "is that you can do things on demand, when you want to. We do believe that chatting and videoconferencing have a place. But in our model, it's not as valuable as allowing students to participate in the community on their own terms, whenever and wherever they are. The idea of forcing a synchronous model, where everyone is on at the same time, well, that's what a classroom is for."

::webextra :: For more information on this topic, visitwww.thejournal.com. Search by the keywordssocial networking.

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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